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Thursday July 30, 2009

Developer helped build Toronto's underground infrastructure

Special to The Globe and Mail

Eugene Boccia was an old-school, no-nonsense businessman, who worried a lot, carried a rosary and made a fortune getting down and dirty in the unglamorous world of sewers and water mains.

He became a millionaire many times over, a luxury that allowed him to delve into philanthropy, much of it anonymous. He may have been wealthy, but he didn't telegraph it.

Mr. Boccia entered the construction business out of high school with his father Ernie in the 1940s, and over time his Toronto-based Alcan-Colony Contracting went underground on many deals. Much of what he did took place in Toronto, but there was plenty of work in the rest of the province - from the Welland Canal in 1948 to projects in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.

"Geno was a worrier, he always worried," said long-time developer and lawyer Rudy Bratty. "Geno and I weren't close, but my father Donato and his father Ernie were very good friends, very much so. They socialized a lot."

Mr. Boccia was one of many contractors involved in the development of Toronto's sewers and water mains during the city's formative years. He competed with the likes of Marco Muzzo and Fred deGasperis, and was one of the founding members of the Metropolitan Toronto Sewer and Water Main Contractors Association.

It was said that Mr. Boccia sometimes tended to overbid, losing projects and leaving him to wonder why the opposition could get away with such low bids. In the end, he was considerably wealthy but not in the same bracket as Mr. DeGasperis, whose fortune has been estimated as close to $1-billion by Canadian Business magazine.

"Geno was not as competitive as the other companies," Mr. Bratty said. "It was not a reflection of his ability. It's just that it was an extremely competitive business. It's a tough and dirty business."

Mr. DeGasperis recalled: "Geno and I bid on a lot of projects. He'd get one job and I'd get a job. Even though we were competing against each other, Geno was a very friendly, nice individual."

Mr. Boccia's attention to detail and mathematical skills were unsurpassed. For years, he kept a little black, 2x3 book crammed full of information that he would stuff in his shirt pocket. He had amazing recall of names and dates and could read documents upside down.

In 1963, he learned that Toronto's historic Jolly Miller Tavern (on Yonge Street south of York Mills Road) was up for sale. The property dated back to 1857 when it was known as the York Mills Hotel, a resting spot for horses and carriages on their way up north. He and his father decided to buy it. For decades, it was the go-to, pickup bar in Toronto, with long lineups the norm.

"If you were a teenager, it was the place to go,'' said Mr. Boccia's son-in-law Gabe Ceci.

In time, however, it no longer was the go-to place.

"People flocked to the place for years and then it petered out," cousin Joe Boccia said.

By the mid-1990s, Mr. Boccia wanted out. In 1997, the City of Toronto expropriated the property and he received a handsome sum. Ironically, he never cared much for the bar scene and rarely drank.

The Jolly Miller was designated a historical site and is the only 19th-century commercial building still standing on its original site in North York. It is now known as the Miller Tavern, a seafood and steak restaurant.

Although he wasn't a golfer, Mr. Boccia also had a big hand in founding the National Pines Golf Club in Innisfil, Ont., outside Barrie.

In recent years, he had been operating a thriving mortgage business.

But he wasn't one to hold onto his money. He could never turn down a charitable cause or a raffle ticket.

When Northwestern Hospital in Toronto required some special machines years ago, Mr. Boccia's initial thought was that he would buy one that would cost $14,500, but he ended up buying 10 of them.

"A church property Eugene knew about needed work and he asked me to go and fix it up and he told me to send him the bill," his cousin Joe said. "The bill was only about $2,500, but that's the kind of guy he was. Sometimes, he was a hard, tough nut, but his heart was as big as his head. His heart was very soft."

EUGENE BOCCIA

Eugene (Geno) Boccia was born March 1, 1931, in Toronto. He died there May 23, 2009, of cancer. He was 78. He leaves wife Alice, sister Teresa, daughter Nancy and son Eugene Jr.

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